A Bangladesh war crimes tribunal sentenced a former leader of the country’s largest Islamic party to death, its first conviction for offenses carried out four decades ago during the independence struggle with Pakistan.
Abul Kalam Azad, an ex-member of the Jamaat-e-Islami party, was today found guilty of rape and murder. The verdict was handed down in absentia in Dhaka by Justice Obaidul Hassan as the 66-year-old Azad is absconding.
“We should not forget the millions of victims who deserve that their tormentors are held accountable,” Hassan and two fellow judges said in written summary of the judgment. “The passage of time does not diminish the guilt. Justice delayed is no longer justice denied.”
As British colonial rule ended in South Asia in 1947, East and West Pakistan were separated by 2,000 kilometers (1,241 miles) of Indian territory. Pakistani troops in 1971 attempted to quell a nationalist uprising in the east that was triggered by the jailing of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, who had led his Awami League to victory in elections.
The war ended nine months later with the creation of Bangladesh after Indian forces helped defeat Pakistan’s army. Jamaat-e-Islami supported staying with Pakistan during the war and several of its leaders are among 10 people being investigated by the tribunal on charges they collaborated with Pakistani forces.
The International Crimes Tribunal was set up in 2010 by the government led by Sheikh Mujib’s daughter, Sheikh Hasina Wajed, after it began to investigate alleged war criminals from the conflict that killed three million people. Opposition parties have called it politically motivated.
New York-based Human Rights Watch has expressed concern over some aspects of the tribunal’s working, including the harassment of defense counsel, the need for clearer definitions of war crimes and better protection for witnesses.
Azad aided the Pakistani army in committing criminal acts and atrocities including murder, abduction, torture and rape in Faridpur, a district in central Bangladesh, during the war, according to a trial document sent to reporters by the tribunal.
Azad was charged with involvement in the killing of at least 12 unarmed people and raping of two Hindu women in Faridpur in 1971, the document shows. Twenty-two prosecution witnesses, including victims and victims’ families, testified against Azad.
“We have no way to appeal against the verdict as the convict is a fugitive,” Abdus Shukur Khan, a state-appointed counsel for Azad, said in a phone interview. “If we want to take the case to the higher court, the convict has to be present in court and file an appeal.”
The incidents cited in the charges “might have taken place, but my client was not involved in such crimes,” Khan, the lawyer, told reporters in Dhaka on Dec. 26.